Historical Significance

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1782

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It was not too long after it changed the image that Americans had of homosexual men when it opened in 1967 that Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band came to seem dated and irrelevant. Such things can happen. Everyone has had the experience of meeting someone who makes a startling first impression and then becomes tiresome as hours drag by; certainly an innovative artistic piece is just as likely to lose its sheen once the novelty wears off. In the case of Crowley’s play, the novelty was based on its respectful handling of the many facets of gay life. Coming at a time when the only homosexuals that showed up in popular entertainment were hysterical ‘‘fruits’’ or deviants bearing the burden of their ‘‘unnatural crimes,’’ The Boys in the Band brought the spectrum of personality types among gays to the American stage.

Not coincidentally, the same wind of change that brought the play popularity brought the Stonewall Rebellion fourteen months after it. It was bound to happen; the gay subculture in the late 1960s was too vibrant to be constrained, repressed by laws governing sexual commerce in a country that bragged about being the land of the free. It was so ready for mainstream attention that a play about eight gay men gathering in a room and talking openly became a runaway success with heterosexual audiences. It was so ready that a few drag queens resisting arrest at the Stonewall Inn one summer night could generate a melee of bricks and bottles, turning the tables on the police and making them hide in fear from the power of homosexuals, building over the next few days to one of late-twentieth- century America’s most significant political moments.

After the riots in Greenwich Village that started at Stonewall brought the struggle for recognition to the streets, there was suddenly less need for a stage play to tell the world about gay diversity. Lacking its social impact, The Boys in the Band was vulnerable to the criticism that almost always comes up when a work is conspicuously popular. Detractors said it was facile; that it dealt in stereotypes; that, truthful as it was, it failed to present the whole truth; and that it should set a more positive example for young homosexuals, one not so despairing. As quickly as the play ascended, so too did it burn out in a flash. The world was different for gays at the start of the 1970s, and The Boys in the Band was already a relic.

In his introduction to the collection of his most significant works, 3 Plays by Mart Crowley, the author mentions, while discussing the autobiographical element of his writing, that The Boys in the Band was originally going to be set in a gay bar but that he changed the setting to a birthday party after attending a birthday party for one of his friends. It is in such seemingly random decisions that art is born. What it might have gained in authenticity from being in a bar setting, the play would have lost in sympathy for its characters. The bar scene has always been a part of the urban gay scene. Much of the cause of this is the social pressures that kept homosexuality underground for most of the country’s history. There were always secret meeting places known to insiders—certain park paths, movie balconies, subway platforms, and so forth—but these were out in the public, functional only for quick meetings, not for social bonding. It is only natural that gay bars would provide privacy in a social atmosphere. Still, a bar setting would have driven home the negative stereotyping that the play has been criticized for over the years. Any culture’s bar scene is likely to highlight elements that the gay culture, in particular, has spent decades living down. A reputation for promiscuity, drug abuse, and for outrageous, decadent, open sexuality would only have been reinforced by a play set in a gay bar, with the extremes of the lifestyle shown at their most exuberant.

Besides, what could be more appropriate for a groundbreaking work than a birthday party carried out every time it is staged? Purists might insist that Stonewall represented the birth of the Gay Pride movement, but even they could not deny the signifi- cance of The Boys in the Band in bringing the culture to a point where Stonewall could occur. Like a birthday party itself, the play was a celebration when it first ran, a gathering for closeted gays who suddenly had a place to go to see other people like themselves. And, like a birthday party, there is always the specter of age, which leads inevitably to death, lurking somewhere about. In the play, Harold, the guest of honor, frets over the ravages of age and associates it with death, which he would welcome over the loss of his beauty. Ironically, in the real world, homosexuals had only a little more than a decade to celebrate their lifestyle out in the open before the advent of AIDS (which was originally called ‘‘gay flu’’ because it appeared to be some sort of virus that traveled among gays) cast the shadow of death over their lives. Since the early 1980s, it has been impossible to seriously discuss homosexual life without the impact of AIDS coming up. Those heady first days of liberation certainly seem like a party from today’s perspective.

The play, though, does not seem like much of a celebration to audiences who experience it. Full of fighting, with egos broken, self-images rewritten, and the constant driving of the main character, Michael, to make his friends see the flaws in their lives, the action on stage shows no awareness of a new era dawning. Instead, it seems bent on trotting out the rottenness of every aspect of its times.

Critics who have dismissed the play for its selfloathing characters have a point but not as strong a point as they might think. The self-loathing aspect— such as Michael’s cruelty to his friends or Harold’s often-quoted introductory line about being an ‘‘ugly, pock-marked Jew Fairy’’—are accurate reflections of their time. These men have a bunker mentality: like military men holed up in a bunker, they feel that they are under attack. They can realistically expect the violent, hostile world to come crashing into their lives at any time, and so they are ready for unmasking and humiliation at any moment. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that they would take the preemptive step of bringing up their own faults. If society sees them as sick, and if, lacking adequate support, they believe that they are, then there would of course be a taint of dissatisfaction with themselves in everything they do.

Modern audiences are, on the whole, astute enough to account for the fact that this play happened at a different time. They know that the homophobia that was common in the 1960s has much to do with why Crowley’s characters are so harsh toward themselves. From a modern perspective, it is almost embarrassing to see how much these men treat their sexual orientation as a curse. But it would be too simplistic to say that this sends a message that being gay is bad. People who take this message from the play either lack historical sense or they don’t trust others to have understanding and so they take on the role of censorship to keep other people from getting the wrong impression. Nobody really looks to Michael, Donald, Emory, and all the rest as ‘‘role models,’’ and, with all that has happened during the past three decades, nobody expects them to provide a glimpse into the New York gay lifestyle anymore. Their only function now is to be interesting characters.

And they are interesting, in ways that are different from how they were interesting when the play first opened. Then, Michael, the angry, self-loathing party host, might have been taken seriously for his tortured Catholicism and his psychoanalytical interpretation of how his mother ‘‘made’’ him into a homosexual with her pampering ways. Now, it is merely interesting to know that people once thought that way. The religious positions declared by Michael and Harold show less interest in theology than showing themselves to be outside the mainstream Protestantism. It is ironic that Michael would try using psychoanalysis to ‘‘cure’’ his homosexuality: over time, homosexuality has become less stigmatized and has outlasted psychoanalysis, which has lost credibility. In fact, Michael’s angst fits more closely with the recognized patterns of alcoholism than with anything his mother may have done.

The other most memorable characters are Emory and Alan. At the time, Emory might have come off as a crowdpleaser, a gay equivalent of the blackfaced minstrel characters who embarrassed African Americans by talking in exaggerated dialects, acting out gross stereotypes of laziness and weakmindedness. Today, though, Emory’s giddy hysteria makes him the play’s most vivid character, and his kindness toward Alan in the second act shows a depth of humanity that a stereotype could not have. Alan’s fit of machismo, lunging at Emory while muttering slurs about gays, might seem dated, but the character is drawn with enough complexity to make him believable in any age. The other characters, though based in stereotypes, are the sorts that can be found in any gathering, and therefore they cannot be considered to be insults to their kind. Larry can’t commit, but his partner Hank is the nesting type; Bernard is a minority within a minority; the Cowboy is kept around for his good looks and is dumb enough not to mind. Donald is the voice of reason that any good story will include.

Of course, The Boys in the Band is not as socially significant as it once was, but it is far from irrelevant. Times have changed, but there is enough insight in this play to give some insight to new audiences. The people who have written it off through the years seem to have mistaken it for a lecture on the social situation of gays, acting disappointed that they’ve come away from the lecture without taking any notes. It isn’t a lecture; it’s a party. Like any party, there are going to be unpleasant moments and moments when the meaning behind the rituals is lost in time, but the mood of celebration is still there every time this play is performed.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Boys in the Band, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kelly teaches creative writing and drama as literature at Oakton Community College.

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